The Giants who limp toward Gillette Stadium this week invoke neither fear nor loathing in New England, so unlike the squads that twice vanquished the Patriots in the Super Bowl that they are barely recognizable.
Strangest of all is the absence of Eli Manning under center. No longer the Giants’ starting quarterback since getting benched a few weeks ago in favor of rookie first-rounder Daniel Jones, Manning will be a sideline observer when the teams meet Thursday night, relegated to backup duty as the final days of his Giants life tick by.
It’s a melancholy end to a football career that I wholeheartedly endorse as one that should land Manning in the Hall of Fame. Come at me with all you have, Manning haters, and list your reasons Eli doesn’t belong. But take a moment to hear my side too, offered from the vantage point of someone who covered much of Manning’s New York career, up to and including those memorable Super Bowl seasons of 2007 and 2011, the two Lombardi Trophies won at New England’s expense.
Back when Manning was the Patriots’ worst nightmare.
Bill Belichick wasn’t kidding Monday when he concluded his heaping pile of praise for Manning by saying, “I have a ton of respect for Eli and all that he’s done. I wish he’d done a little bit less in a couple games against us.”
Does anyone actually need reminding? Tom Brady & Co. would have two more rings if not for Manning’s heroics.
There was the first shocking upset back in February 2008, when a then-perfect Patriot team watched Manning escape a sack he never should have escaped to complete a pass he never should have completed, a connection to David Tyree that remains one of the greatest Super Bowl plays of all time.
Then there was the upset sequel four years later, when one Manning throw again made the difference in the game, a sideline strike to Mario Manningham that you can put up against any throw by any great quarterback in a league celebrating its 100th anniversary this season.
It was that good.
“Just one of those once-in-a-lifetime throws,” Manningham recalled in a recent phone conversation. “Just a great throw. One you see every eight or 10 years in the NFL.
“As you know, Eli has a lot of accuracy, his whole career he always had that, so I wasn’t surprised at the throw. You guys didn’t really see all the throws in practice that he made.
“It was second nature to us. He put it on the money. Either I was going to get it, drop it, or it was going to get knocked out of bounds when I got hit. I knew it was going to get challenged.”
That it did, and replays show that it wasn’t just Eli’s pinpoint throw that made the play possible, but Manningham’s sideline ballet moves too.
“I wore size 11 cleats,” Manningham laughed, “and I like to say as a joke that if I wore 11½, I would have been out of bounds.”
With the play upheld — it was the first of an 88-yard drive that would end with Ahmad Bradshaw’s game-winning touchdown — Manning had secured his second career Super Bowl MVP trophy in two tries.
“We’ll forever be in history together,” Manningham said. “I’m glad I had the chance to share that with him. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame for sure, I think. First ballot.”
Belichick, presumably like most New Englanders, was less certain, but did concede that Manning belongs in the Hall of Fame conversation. He credited Eli not just for the backbreaking plays against his team, but for the way he managed a career in a market Belichick knows from experience can shred those not ready for it.
“He’s a class kid,” Belichick said. “Knowing Eli, I have a lot of respect for him. Having coached the Giants for over a decade, I know the things that go with being a quarterback of that franchise. Certainly saw it during my time there.
“I think he’s handled a lot of things both on and off the field very professionally, like the high-character person that he is, with class and professionalism, but at the same time with a high level of competitiveness and a high level of performance.”
To the latter point, Manning had other memorable moments. Two road playoff wins in Lambeau Field, one with Brett Favre on the opposite sideline, the other with Aaron Rodgers, one despite bone-chilling temperatures, the other with an unforgettable just-before-halftime Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks.
A lengthy ironman streak proved his toughness, desire, and willingness to be out there every week (Manning made 210 consecutive starts from 2007-18), a single NFC Championship game in San Francisco doing that all by itself. I’ll never forget Manning repeatedly rising up from the sodden San Francisco turf, literally pulling pieces of the field from his facemask.
To the former, he was just as exceptional. The way he stood at his locker, week after week, day after day, always ready to face questions whether his team had won or lost, whether his arm had thrown touchdowns or picks. The way he invited a little-known receiver with some hometown roots to his personal lockout workouts, opening the door to Victor Cruz’s unlikely Pro Bowl career.
The way he laughed with me when I challenged him (on camera) to name all the backup quarterbacks who’d been stuck behind him, never to start a game, and the way he remembered them all. The way he wiped away tears as Tom Coughlin said goodbye to the franchise, a display of sincere emotion that left even the stoic coach touched beyond measure.
Maybe that combination isn’t enough for you to see this Manning as a Hall of Famer, not with a 116-116 career record as a starter, not with career passing numbers that might appear to rival the likes of his brother Peyton but feel to you just the result of compilation.
But all I know is what I saw across two Super Bowl runs, when Manning combined for 15 touchdown passes against two interceptions, when he discovered himself as a leader the first time around and cemented his legacy as one the second time through. Though the Giants wouldn’t have won either of those games without their vaunted pass rush and a few clutch kicks, they wouldn’t have won them without Manning, either.
Two plays against the Patriots, two plays the great Bill Belichick wishes had never happened, made the difference. And Manning made them.